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Get set for the best F1 season in years

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Jonathan Legard | 09:35 UK time, Monday, 8 March 2010

When Patrick Head talks, you listen.

"Everybody keeps coming up and asking who's quickest, as if we should all know the answer," said Williams's director of engineering during a break in the final pre-season test session in Barcelona.

"But I don't know the answer. Nobody knows the answer, and isn't that the whole point? We're all waiting to see what's going to happen, who's going to be fastest at the first race and the rest of the year."

Analysing testing times ahead of a new Formula 1 campaign is a well established ritual which never fails to turn up the level of anticipation.

But there look to be as many as seven teams on a competitive curve for the opening races.

Ferrari and McLaren appear to have their noses in front of Red Bull and Mercedes, with Williams, Force India and the reborn Sauber team on their tails.

So the 2010 season, the start of Head's fifth decade in F1, promises to be one of the most compelling contests he's ever been involved in, stirring memories of the great days of Mansell, Prost, Piquet and Senna in the late 1980s.

Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet in 1986The depth of talent in F1 in 2010 finally brings back memories of the glorious mid-1980s. Photo: Getty

Why so? Well, there's the ban on race refuelling which has ramped up the pre-season guessing game over performance, but let's start with the return of grand prix racing's most successful driver, Michael Schumacher.

His name, reputation and achievements transcend the sport. He divides opinion as quickly as he used to win races. Whatever your view on him, you always watch him.

His comeback, after three years in retirement, was headline news around the world. Can he still be a contender like Lance Armstrong, back in the saddle to finish third in last year's Tour de France? Will he still be as fast, and ruthless?

Or will he be made to look an ageing has-been by new A-listers like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel who have never had to contend with him looming large in their mirrors in a race?

Schumacher will be one of four world champions on the grid who'll expect to be fighting at the front in competitive cars.

His reunion with Ross Brawn under the Mercedes takeover of last year's constructors' champions has galvanised a grid already highly charged by rivalries.

The honeymoon accord at McLaren between Hamilton and Jenson Button, and Fernando Alonso's bonhomie at Ferrari alongside Felipe Massa are about to be challenged for real. How significant is Red Bull's continuity with Vettel and Mark Webber?

Here are battles we thought we'd never see but always wished we could.

The remarkable numbers following testing on the web and the thousands who came to the tracks during the four weeks in Spain underlined the magnetism of the leading personalities and their new pairings.

In contrast to Brawn's fairytale success in 2009, with only Red Bull for championship competition, there's the prospect of Ferrari and McLaren striking back. Business as usual between the two heavyweights or battle joined in a four way scrap for the title? We're about to find out.

Simply having the fastest car, however, may not be a guarantee of success in 2010.
The changes to qualifying and the ban on refuelling during a race will force the teams out of their comfort zone where previously they could readily predict tyres and pitstops.

Now strategy will be more spontaneous, more reactive. Teams will need to cover their rivals in the chase for a clear track on fresh tyres. You can't afford to be caught up in a tailback of slow coaches.

For the first time in seven years, Saturday sessions will be a series of three thrilling sprints. No more fuel-adjusted grids.

But top 10 qualifiers must continue to use the same tyres for the start of the race. Do you gamble on pole for an early advantage but risk needing to pit too early, or do you play a longer, safer game, preparing for a tyre change when the car is lighter and faster?

Around circuits such as Monaco and Hungary, for example, where overtaking is so limited, the decision-makers on the pit wall will certainly earn their money.

With pit stops targeted at a super-fast three seconds, never has a quick-fit wheel change been so critical.

Starting with around 170 kg of fuel - double last year's heaviest load - will demand an elusive consistency of performance. Drivers will be performing a high-speed balancing act, managing tyre wear, brakes, fuel economy and ever-changing handling characteristics.

Those with the ability to find a strong baseline balance quickest will be the ones to take an early advantage in the championship.

For the first time ever in F1, that means scoring 25 points for victory under a new system that's been extended to include the top 10. It works out as a percentage gain over the old system, awarding 18 for second place then respectively 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 and 1 for 10th.

With three new teams entering the sport, that covers almost half the field and looks to be a clear incentive to encourage overtaking, tyre wear permitting.

Given the newcomers' chequered build-up to the season, their share of points may be a long time coming.

But the return of Lotus, under new ownership, and the full-scale entry of such a global brand as Virgin have to be positive signs.

Nico Hulkenberg's debut at Williams, with a dazzling junior track record like Hamilton, will be worth watching.

Kamui Kobayashi's panache should be entertaining at Sauber. And after a series of false starts, Bruno Senna, gets his chance to measure himself in the sport where his late uncle, Ayrton, left such champion mark.

The potential is there for a classic season, with drama up and down the grid. We can only hope that F1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone's fears of an anticlimax are as misplaced as his aborted plans for winners' medals.

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